The dramatic finish to the 2015/16 season saw the Albion’s shattered players miss out on Premier League glory – and disappointed fans who dreamed of seeing them run out at the Emirates, the Etihad and other similarly glamorous venues (and also Selhurst Park). The smallest of consolations for Albion’s travelling supporters is the Championship remains a source of excellent away days, and this season is arguably better than ever in that respect.
Losing Burnley, Hull and Middlesbrough from the calendar broke few hearts, whilst the addition of Newcastle, Aston Villa and Norwich City had the Albion community reaching for diaries and poring over train timetables. It’s not just the bigger clubs either: visits to less celebrated venues such as Burton-upon-Trent and Rotherham, in recent years, have proved to be up there with the best of away-day experiences.
There’s something quite special about being part of a large away crowd, of boarding a train to find it already packed with folk in blue and white, drinking Marks & Spencer lager or clutching a medicinal coffee and breakfasting on Doritos at some ungodly hour. Or, of pulling into a motorway service station and spotting the full spectrum of Albion shirts clustered around Costa (Coffee, not Liz). The happy hum of as-yet-unchallenged optimism is at its finest in these early, pre-match hours.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the more challenging midweek away trek. The Tuesday night fixture that might as well be on the moon: the one where only the rich, the retired, the locally-residing, and the ultra-loyal few dare to tread. The faces of the 300 or so ‘wherever, whenever’ hardcore group become comfortingly familiar. You nod to each other in passing: unspoken acknowledgement of your shared bond and questionable sanity at taking the day off work to drive to Plymouth and back for an hour and a half of football. Even in the worst of winter weather conditions, the reassuring sight of the Supporters Club bus ahead of you is a sign the game is definitely on and that somehow, everything will be alright in the end.
Rewards for such loyalty tend to be few and far between, so to every one of you whose unceasing optimism in the face of all logic took you, once again, to Hillsborough recently, graveyard of Albion ambitions for over a hundred years: that win was yours, all yours.
I hope you enjoyed the journey home!